Portland: The Town That Built Sydney

The industrial history of Portland is intrinsically linked with cement. It was the site of the first cement works in Australia which opened in 1902 and operated until 1991. Cement from Portland was shipped around Australia, and it played an integral role in the construction of Sydney in particular throughout the twentieth century.

The first European in the area was a surveyor called James Blackman who surveyed roads in 1820 through this part of Wiradjuri country. A lime kiln was built on 61 hectares of land selected by Thomas Murray in 1863, and in 1883 the railway arrived. The village of Portland was gazetted in 1894 and the name Portland is attributed to the limestone-rich Isle of Portland or for the Portland cement making process, depending on the source.

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The Glen Museum, located in a recently restored building which had been an early hospital at the Portland Cement Works

In 1902 the Portland Cement Works opened in the village. The Commonwealth Portland Cement Company Ltd had been registered in 1900 by Dr August Wilhelm Karl Scheidel on behalf of the New Zealand Mines Trust. Dr Scheidel designed the cement works and supervised their construction. He was regarded as a pioneer in industrial relations: he insured his employees against accidents, introduced eight hour work days at the site, and provided an ambulance service and accident ward which was shared with the town. Support was also provided for the construction of a hospital, built in 1913.

Recruitment of overseas labour in the early years was necessary due to difficulty in securing local labour, and it gave the village a cosmopolitan air. By 1912 the works were producing about 40% of Australia’s Portland Cement. Maximum levels of production were reached in 1928.

The works were nearly self-sufficient including water, coal, electricity and railway resources. The cement factory was a significant employer, and some families provided generations of workers. During the Great Depression there were massive layoffs and up to 80% of the workforce lost their jobs.

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Rear view of some of the remaining buildings of the Portland Cement Works

The old works site is classified as a historic landscape of approximately six hectares. It was the site of one of Australia’s most successful lime quarrying and cement manufacture enterprises, generating a product that was integral to the construction of many important structures in the state. It provided raw material from its own quarries “and a place for the long-term, large-scale production of world quality cement, using a succession of both local and imported machinery and labour.” (Source: NSW Office of Environment & Heritage)

Throughout New South Wales, Portland is significant in that it is one of the rare long-term single industry one-company towns. This relationship can be seen in the layout of the town and its civic amenities, including workers cottages, concrete roads and swimming pools. The scale of the operations, including powerhouse, boiler stack and various workshops provide significant links with industrial heritage.

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These cement silos were recently painted by Guido Van Helen and have become a popular tourist spot in Portland

The Portland Cement Works site is being progressively cleared for redevelopment under The Foundations Portland NSW. The proposal includes ecotourism, shopping centre, activity areas and artist precincts. It will be interesting to watch the site continue to evolve into the next phase of its development. Recently this has included the painting of murals on old cement silos by Guido Van Helten.

It is encouraging to see signs of life in an old industrial town – what does the future hold once the industry has moved on, technological changes take place and the workforce moves?

[Photo: part of the administration block in the Portland Cement Works precinct]

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Down in the valley, the valley so low*

I have a bit of a thing for old places. Places with a history, regardless of whether they are in current use or not. The Australian countryside is host to thousands of ruined and abandoned sites, including places where entire towns have been left to slip slowly back into the soil. When driving beyond the city limits, sooner or later you will come across properties where there is little more than a chimney left standing in an enclosed space that once held a home where people lived.

But it isn’t just homes that are left in this state. It can be industrial sites that are left behind when their usefulness has come to an end due to changes in technology or productivity. They can be schools or boarding houses, factories or power stations, convents or hospitals.  I recently came across a blog post by Alien Shores with some beautiful photographs of ruins which you can find here.

One of the notable industrial ruins in the mountains area is the Blast Furnace in Lithgow. The Australian iron smelting industry began here, and it was an important industrial development as well as being a major employer and support for the mining industry. There is a detailed analysis of the significance of the site here. It was constructed between 1905 and 1913, and operated until it was relocated to Port Kembla in 1928. The site was opened in 1907 when Lithgow was the fourth largest town in Australia. To understand the sheer scale of industrial activity in Lithgow at the time, have a look at the historic photographs assembled here by John Paix.

The historical importance of the Blast Furnace has been acknowledged, and there is currently preservation work being carried out in order to make the location more accessible for tourists following government and council funding grant approvals. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this site.

Do old places capture your imagination?

*Taken from the lyrics of Industrial Town by Weddings, Parties, Anything

[Photo: Blast Furnace Park, Lithgow]